Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Year Fun

It's Leap Year Day! This is exciting enough for us in the present day, but imagine in the years of yore when Leap Year signified a time when women were allowed to propose marriage to men! 

That's right. According to tradition, every four years, the shoe was worn on the other foot, and women could pop the question.

An Eagle article from March 3, 1888 explained in the ins and outs of this custom:

In three years out of every four, man has the privilege of "popping the question," and the annoyance of sometimes having a plainspoken "no" for the reply. On the fourth year, woman may propose, if it so please her.
 A lady has the privilege in Leap Year of suggesting marriage between herself and a bachelor acquaintance. In the event of his refusing, the penalty is that the ungallant gentleman shall present the tender damsel with a new silk dress. 
There is a reservation, however, that the right to claim this penalty depends on the circumstance that when she propose, the damsel was the wearer of a scarlet petticoat, which (or a little of the lower portion of which) she must exhibit to the gentleman, the understood idea being that the silken dress shall cover the petticoat and thus assuage dire feminine indignation at the rejection of her offered hand.

So, gentleman. Enjoy your Leap Year and be wary of scarlet underpants.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

NYT Begins Sharing Gems From its Morgue

Lucky for us, The New York Times is "eager to share historical riches that have been locked away from public view" and has just launched a new blog to help it do just that.

The Lively Morgue, as it is called, is going to feature historic photographs from the Times' sizable collection. Did I say sizable? I mean gi-normous. Here's their own description of the collection's parameters:

How many? We don’t know. Our best guess is five million to six million prints and contact sheets (each sheet, of course, representing many discrete images) and 300,000 sacks of negatives...The picture archive also includes 13,500 DVDs, each storing about 4.7 gigabytes worth of imagery. When the Museum of Modern Art set out to exhibit the highlights of the Times archive in 1996, it dispatched four curators. They spent nine months poring over 3,000 subjects, working with two Times editors, one of whom spent a year on the project. In the end, they estimated that they’d seen only one-quarter of the total. If we posted 10 new archival pictures every weekday on Tumblr, just from our print collection, we wouldn’t have the whole thing online until the year 3935.

(And in case you don't know, a newspaper morgue was not where clippings and photos went to die, but where they went so they could be found again. It's a useful reference system in which clippings are organized by subject headings so past stories on a person or subject can quickly be located.)

Photos on The Lively Morgue include the original caption that ran when it was published and links to relevant stories. The Times is also including an image of the back of each photo, which often contained a lot of information, like exactly when and where it was published, who the photographer was, how much they were paid, and whether the photo was one of a series.

While only the tip of the iceberg of this massive collection will be posted in our lifetime, Brooklyn Before Now will certainly be checking in on this welcome new trove of historic images.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Fire Destroys Cupola at Borough Hall

On the morning of Feb. 26, 1895, a great fire destroyed the cupola of Brooklyn’s City Hall – now Borough Hall. The Brooklyn Eagle of course had the story ready in time for their 4 o’clock edition and it dominated their front page.

The fire was believed to have broken out at 7:30 a.m. in the wash room located underneath the stairway to the top floor. Whether or not it had been caused by the work of “incendiaries” was yet to be determined.

Nobody was seriously injured in the blaze, though it was a very close call for the building’s “keepers” and their families, who lived on the top floor.

A man named James Dunne was keeper, assisted by Frank Weekes, who was living with his wife and a 3-year-old child (reportedly an orphan from New Jersey).

Mr. Dunne had four children, three of whom were home at the time, along with his wife. They were sitting down to breakfast when Mr. Weekes burst in to inform them that smoke and flames were issuing from the wash room beneath them. There was but one staircase to the top floor and it was made of wood. By the time the group tried to make their escape, the staircase was too overcome with fire to be passable.

Smoke was soon filling the rooms and the family was forced to gulp in fresh air from the open windows. “I was in a state of great excitement and every minute seemed an hour,” Dunne later said.

Finally, Hook and Ladder No. 10 of State Street arrived, but the firemen botched it. They underestimated the distance to the window and didn’t park the ladder beyond the curb, close enough to the building. When they lengthened the ladder it didn’t reach the window.

Just when all seemed hopeless, District Engineer Samuel Duff came to the rescue. He had been working on getting the flames under control from the lower floor and finally calmed the fire enough on the stairway so that the two families could pass.

The crowd that now gathered outside the burning building cheered as the families emerged unharmed. But it was clear the fire that had spread to the cupola and clock tower would be more difficult to tame.

Here is how the Eagle described the culmination of the fire:

“Shortly after 8 o’clock there was a loud explosion and spectators thought that something awful had happened. The noise was occasioned by the cracking of the big bell under the influence of the great heat. A piece of the metal weighing probably three quarters of a ton dropped down through the charred timbers clear to the floor outside of the Common Council chamber, thirty feet below. The faces of the clock were gone long [before] this, and the big cog wheels, which marked out in their gaps the hours and minutes of time’s lapse for more than a generation of Brooklynites were warping and melting under the tremendous heat. At 8:15 the tower began to reel like a man with vertigo. Then there was only a charred skeleton to fall but that was almost shrouded in smoke and fire. Suddenly the cupola lurched forward and fell with a frightful crash. The remainder of the two-ton bell dropped straight down like a plummet and wedged itself with the debris of the clock between two of the beams of the fourth story…With the fall of the cupola came a shower of sparks which menaced the surrounding property.”

The fire was fully extinguished by 9 a.m. Amazingly, aside from the cupola, bell and clock, the structure was not too badly hurt. Most of the damage at that point was from the gallons of water poured over the flames. “The place had been flooded,” the Eagle wrote.

Mayor Charles Schieren was away in Baltimore and so the President of the Board of Alderman, Jackson Wallace, was acting mayor. He was able to address the calamity with jocularity before the day was out, saying, “Well, I think the old building looks better without the tower.”

Despite Wallace’s opinion, the cupola was replaced three years later, in 1898 — the year the building became “Borough Hall” rather than City Hall.

Four days after the fire, the fire marshal's report was issued and explained the cause of the fire: "Matches, which had been carelessly dropped on the floor in the several offices, had been swept up with the accumulation of dust and waste papers, all of which had been taken up and been placed in baskets, which were carried up to a closet located under the stairway leading to the top floor. These matches could have become ignited either by the friction caused in emptying the baskets or in being stepped on by parties handling the baskets."

On This Day in History: Fire at Borough Hall [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Food Markets Past and Present at BHS

The Brooklyn Historical Society is going to explore "New York Food Markets Past and Present" through a panel discussion on Feb. 29 at 7 p.m.

The panelists will include culinary historians Andrew Coe and Annie Hauck-Lawson and co-founder of the Brooklyn Flea Jonathan Butler (who is also publisher of the popular Brownstoner web site, which posts many wonderful articles on Brooklyn's architectural history).

Brooklyn Before Now wrote about Annie Hauck-Lawson's book Gastropolis: Food and New York City in 2009 — you can check that out here.

The panel discussion is free with price of admission to the historical society (128 Pierrepont St.).

Bon Appétit!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cobble Hill Resident Discovers Brooklyn Ancestors

The Brooklyn Eagle posted an interesting story this week by Mary Grimes. Ms. Grimes writes, "I lived in Brooklyn for 25 years with no idea ancestors had preceded me there."

Upon finding an old family account of her great great grandmother, Anne Eliza Wolcott Dewey, Ms. Grimes discovered that this ancestor had lived in Brooklyn when it was a small but rapidly growing village clustered around the Fulton Ferry landing in the 1820s and 30s. She lived at 11 Prospect St., which no longer exists. Her mother (Ms. Grimes' great great great grandmother) opened a school for young ladies on Prospect Street, where "for four dollars per quarter, she was ready to teach spelling, reading, writing, and sewing."

It sounds like these ladies were part of the literary scene, such as it existed. Ms Grimes writes:

"Anne Eliza was surrounded by 'cultured' women, and she described her home as a 'literary center.' Her aunts contributed to magazines like Godey’s Ladies Book and The Ladies Repository. Poet and editor (The New World) Park Benjamin was a guest, as was writer and editor (The Home Journal ,which became Town & Country) N.P. Willis. Willis’s sister, Fanny Fern — novelist, essayist and children’s story writer — also visited often. Anne Eliza was acquainted with literary figures like Catherine Sedgwick, Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant."
Anne Eliza left Brooklyn soon after her own education was finished and eventually married and settled in Ohio.

Ms. Grimes' story makes us think of Francis Guy's painting "Winter Scene in Brooklyn," which is pictured above. Guy depicted the village of Brooklyn at the Fulton Ferry area around 1820, just a few years before Anne Eliza was living there, so it helps us to picture what her Brooklyn looked like.

The people in Guy's painting were based on real villagers, and the Brooklyn Museum has on their web site a wonderful key that identifies many of the people and buildings in the painting. You can check that out here. Among the buildings identified is St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, which was only a few doors down from where Anne Eliza lived. 

One of the people depicted in the painting is Jacob Patchen, who Brooklyn Before Now has written about before. You can read all about him here. He was a grumpy (to say the least) man who was opposed to virtually all forms of progress in the village of Brooklyn. Most likely, Anne Eliza and her mother would have known him or at least known who he was. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

BAM Opens Exhibit on Its Own History

It's so nice to see BAM really embracing its history this year.

Not only did they release this extremely informative book about their history to mark their 150th anniversary, but now they have an accompanying exhibit in the lobby of their building at 30 Lafayette, which includes documents, archival video, photographs and the like. (Brooklyn Before Now has yet to check out this exhibit, but very much looks forward to having something to do while waiting for invariably late friends at BAM's cinema).

It is free and open to the public — the exhibit, that is — so you can pop in whenever you are next in the neighborhood. It will be up through August.

And if you really can't drag your butt out to buy the book or see the exhibit, you should definitely be checking out their blog, which has lots of historic tidbits. For Presidents Day, for example, they post that "every president from Cleveland to Truman appeared at the Academy. FDR, who spoke here 10 times, drew the largest recorded crowd in BAM history—7,000, with the approximately 4,800 who couldn't be seated spilling onto Lafayette Avenue."

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Willie Sutton Arrest, 60 Years Later

Sutton has a smoke after his Brooklyn arrest. AP

The New York Post featured a story over the weekend about 86-year-old Donald Shea.

A retired New York police officer, Shea made one arrest he'll never forget. In 1952 he collared the famous bank robber Willie Sutton, who had been holed up in an apartment on Dean Street in Brooklyn. If Sutton's name doesn't sound familiar, this might: When he was asked why he robbed banks, he famously answered "Because that's where the money is."

The arrest was on Feb. 18, 1952, sixty years ago on Saturday. At the Eagle, we also ran a story, as part of our "On This Day in History" series, with lots of colorful details about Sutton's criminal career.

For example, Sutton "ultimately spent 33 years of his 79-year life in prison, but he also successfully escaped prison three times, using elaborate schemes, such as painstakingly sculpting a likeness of his head out of bits of plaster and laying it on his cot so that guards would think he was still safely incarcerated rather than running to freedom." 

When Sutton was arrested that February day in Brooklyn, he had been on the run since 1947, having escaped a Pennsylvania prison by dressing up as a prison guard.

And not to step on Officer Shea's accomplishment, but the credit for Sutton's capture really goes to a young clothing salesman named Arnold Schuster, who spotted Sutton on the subway that day, followed him, and managed to flag down police to make the arrest.

Schuster paid the ultimate price for being such a conscientious citizen. A few weeks after Sutton's arrest, Schuster was murdered in cold blood near his home in Borough Park, shot in each eye and in the groin, allegedly at the order of a mob boss who hated "squealers."

More at the Eagle about Sutton's first robbery in Brooklyn (at age 9!), his innovative robbery techniques, and what he did in "retirement."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Day at Ravenhall Baths – Coney Island, 1962

A postcard of Ravenhall Baths
The following post is by Tommy Coca, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. It is a recollection of the time he spent at Coney Island’s Ravenhall Baths. Located at W. 19th Street and the boardwalk, Ravenhall opened in the late 19th century and operated until it was destroyed by fire on April 28, 1963.

By Tommy Coca

The day starts as previous years’ summer days began. Two young boys climb the stairs to the ‘B’ train, also known as the West End Line. At this particular entrance there is no token clerk. The ten inches or so between the floor and the bottom of the fence is enough room for Tommy and Joseph to wiggle their skinny 10-year old frames underneath, saving them the cost of a token. This gives them 15 cents each to spend later in the day for candy or in the arcade.

This was a different time. August, 1962. On Halloween, children don’t need parental escorts to go trick-or-treating. Elderly passengers are instantly offered seats on a crowded subway car. And in Tommy and Joseph's neighborhood of Bensonhurst, fish trucks and pizzerias do a brisk business on Fridays. (This was before the Second Ecumenical Council and the Catholic Church still forbade the eating of meat on Fridays).

So yes, it was a different time, and parents didn’t harbor the fears they do today. It was not unheard of to allow 10-year old boys to ride the subway a few stops to Coney Island. After all, it was safer than cooling themselves under the fire hydrant, where they risked being hit by a car.

As the train trudges to the last stop, the doors open and the sounds and smells of Coney Island instantly take hold – the roar of the wooden roller coasters, the screams, the aromas of cotton candy and French fries. Down the ramp they go. Surrounding them are the carousel, Wonder Wheel, movie theaters and shooting galleries. Further ahead is Steeplechase Park and towering behind is the park’s centerpiece, the 262-foot tall Parachute Jump. On some days the boys succeed in sneaking into the park late in the day and searching for discarded punch cards, which will allow them access to rides.

The Parachute Jump, 1962. AP Photo

On the next block is Ravenhall Baths. They show their passes and enter. Up ahead they hear the rhythm of the punching bags as the old and young tough guys of Brooklyn hone their boxing skills in a shaded area. Further along are handball courts, sand boxes, lockers, and other features. Features that will remain ingrained in their memory decades later.

The boys have season lockers. Most people choose to use keyed locks as opposed to combination locks. The key is attached to a band that is worn on one’s ankle. The boys are always bothered by the sight of a man missing a leg who wears the band and key on his stump. In the unroofed locker area many older men sit on chairs either naked, or with towels draping themselves, and play pinochle as they get some sun.

The heights of the lockers are perhaps seven feet. On the other side of the wooden wall is the women’s section, and as such the older kids often climb to the top of the lockers to look over. A more common practice is to punch a small hole in the wooden fence and peek through. The boys head to the sand pile where the older guys chalk up their hands and exercise on the high bar. They watch a while and then walk to the snack stand.

“A pack of Parliaments for my mom please,” says Joseph.
“Where is your mother?” asks the man behind the counter.
“She’s in the pool,” he answers confidently.
“Here you go. Bring them right to her.”

The area by the snack stand is under a canopy where it seems the Yankee game is always on. This was a time when the preponderance of the games was played in the daytime. Once they’ve got the score, or see the Yankees take a turn at bat, the boys return to the locker area. There are several steam rooms and one has been out of order for as long as they can remember. This is where they smoke their cigarettes, absurdly reasoning that if anyone sees smoke they’ll assume it is steam. The boys aren’t yet ready for a swim. As a matter of fact they can’t swim and instead typically just cool off in the shallow end. Today, after their smoke, they wander around the facility.

Nearby is the kiddie pool, which is near the boardwalk and exit to the beach. The older kids are permitted to leave the facility and walk along the boardwalk or swim in the Atlantic. They are stamped on their shoulders with an invisible ink that shows under a purple ultraviolet light, which proves they are members when they return. Under the boardwalk wait their friends who do not have the money to enter. They position themselves back-to-back and rub the stamp onto their buddies’ shoulders so they are allowed in.

Now they are ready for the pool. There is plenty of activity by the diving boards, which are named after playing cards. The highest is the Ace, and as the height decreases the names get more diminutive: the King, Queen and Jack. Sal the lifeguard is off to the side. He is a somewhat old, short, gregarious and barrel-chested man in an orange bathing suit who offers to teach the youngsters how to swim. He accomplishes this by tossing them in the deep end. They either prove to be quick learners or Sal dives into the pool and rescues them.

The mats around the pool are scratchy and sting bare feet. Beach balls bounce, people listen to transistor radios, kids across the street shriek as they ride the Steeplechase roller coaster. Some of the older kids begin to tease Tommy. They taunt the skinny boy who can’t swim. “C’mon you baby, let’s see you jump off the diving board.”

The goading continues and to the amazement of all, Tommy accepts the challenge, runs onto the Jack, and jumps in. Sal the lifeguard’s services are put into action. Although he still can’t swim, Tommy has earned a degree of respect, and vows that before the summer ends, he will indeed swim, and even jump off the Ace. August turns to September. Labor Day weekend arrives and the season ends. Lockers are emptied. Tommy does not jump off the ace. Maybe next year!

But before the new season arrives, a fire destroys the baths. Ravenhall Baths is gone and transformed into a memory for generations of Brooklynites. In 1957 it was the Dodgers, and now in 1964, it is Ravenhall. Brooklyn is changing and Tommy and Joseph learn a lesson regarding the lack of permanence.

The following summer their families get lockers at Steeplechase. On the last weekend of the summer their parents treat them to a day on the rides at the Park. A day of fun and amusements before the school year begins. They enjoy the giant wooden slide, the Steeplechase horses, the Barrels of Fun, and all the other rides. No matter how brave they pretend to be, though, the Parachute Jump is just too tall, and the tremendous jolt they observe as it hits the top and plunges back down to earth terrifies them. Maybe next year they’ll have the guts. Maybe next year! But as they once more learn, sometimes you must seize the day. Next year will come but there may be changes.

The park, which had been in existence since 1898, fails to open for the 1965 season. Steeplechase Park fades to black and joins the Dodgers, Ebbets Field, the original Luna Park, and Ravenhall Baths, as one of the borough’s treasured memories.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

On the Lecture Cicuit: Talking Fiction/Talking Fact

The Brooklyn Historical Society and the New York Review of Books is teaming up to produce a series of three discussions that will pair a fiction author with a scholar who studies a related topic.

The first installment is scheduled for Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. Elizabeth Gaffney, author of The End of Wonder, a collection of stories set in WWII-era Brooklyn, will sit down with Marci Reaven, vice-president for History Exhibits at the New-York Historical Society, who is currently working on an exhibit titled "WWII & NYC."

The second installment, scheduled for March 1 at 7 p.m., will pair Arthur Phillips, author of The Tragedy of Arthur, a novel about a long-lost Shakespeare play being rediscovered, and James Shapiro, a leading Shakespearean historian.

The final installment will feature Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn, whose protagonist Eilis Lacey travels from Ireland to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, and Mick Moloney, Irish folklorist and musician. This one is scheduled for April 1 at 2 p.m.

Each "Fact/Fiction" event will be at the Brooklyn Historical Society's Othmer Library, 128 Pierrepont St. Entry comes with price of admission: $6 adults; $4 students, teachers and seniors; free for members and children under 12.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Actual Film Footage of 1903 BAM Fire!

The BAM Hamm Archives recently posted this video to their web page. They acquired it from the Library of Congress. It's actual footage of the fire that destroyed the original Brooklyn Academy of Music, which was on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. The building burned down in 1903.

For more on BAM history, check out this article we wrote on a book that was recently released about BAM's 150 year history, and of course, the BAM Hamm Archives web site.

The Mad Police Captain of Green-Wood

Brownstoner dug up a macabre tale from Brooklyn's past, featured yesterday in their excellent "Walkabout" series on Brooklyn history. It is the story of Captain Peter D. Lark, who in 1899 was captain of the Green-Wood Cemetery police force. Yes, the cemetery had its own police force. Remember that Green-Wood was a huge tourist attraction back in the 19th century, said to rival Niagara Falls in its number of visitors. Captain Lark and his 12-man brigade were charged with keeping vandals from desecrating the sacred ground.

But despite having this relatively well-paying gig, which came with the perk of living in a charming cottage on 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue rent free, Captain Lark was a miserable jerk who mercilessly beat his wife. Lark's life came to a disturbing end one morning while his son was preparing him breakfast:

That morning, at 6 a.m., Charlie Lark was in the kitchen making breakfast, and he heard his father call down to him from the upstairs bedroom, 'Are you ready, Charlie?' he called. 'Yes, father,' Charlie replied, 'Shall I cook the ham?' The only answer he got was a single gunshot.    
 More at Brownstoner, including an image of Lark's cottage.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Battle of the Baritones at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre

This February 12 is a little known anniversary here in Brooklyn. It will be 80 years ago on that day that a young crooner named Bing Crosby first took to the stage at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. Below is an article about Crosby, his fellow crooners Rudy Vallee and Russ Colombo, and their time at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, a building which is still extant, currently used as a gymnasium for Long Island University. The article was submitted to us by Martin McQuade, a singer and Bing Crosby expert. See more about Martin’s bio below this story.

There’s lots of public enemies, but I know only three.
Crosby, Columbo and Vallee.
They’ve made a million married women wish that they were free.
Crosby, Columbo and Vallee.

Those crooning vagabonds are stealing all our blondes,

Now I know what has become of Sally;
And ev’ry time you kiss your girl, who is she thinking of?
Crosby, Columbo and Vallee.

This 1931 song gives a hint of the spell cast by Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo and Rudy Vallee when they performed at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, one of the major stages where these legendary troubadours pioneered the art of popular singing and minted the template for the musical idol, which has become a mainstay of our popular culture. 

The Brooklyn Paramount, at the corner of Flatbush and Dekalb avenues, opened its doors on Nov. 24, 1928, right at the cusp of a technological revolution. It was at this time that talking pictures were new, and the worlds of broadcasting and recording were transformed by the introduction of the microphone. The Brooklyn Paramount was the first theater expressly equipped for sound. Electronic amplification enabled vocalists to sing intimately and helped usher in the age of the crooner.

Rudy Vallee/AP Photo
One of the early crooners was Rudy Vallee. Vallee at first was hesitant to sing, thinking that his tenor voice was too thin and nasal. He compensated by using a megaphone. But the microphone soon made the megaphone obsolete and Vallee’s sweet, fastidious singing won favor.

In 1929 he appeared throughout New York on the Keith vaudeville circuit. He was a hit throughout the chain, except when his tour ended at The Albee Theater, on Dekalb Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. The singer recalled in his autobiography, “They received us courteously but their fervor was restrained. There are few out-and-out smashes in that borough. Brooklyn (and I say this with great affection) is a country unto itself.”

The situation changed when he was booked in May 1929 for 10 weeks at five shows a day alternating with the first run movies at the New York Paramount. Police were called out to maintain order while flappers mobbed the appearances of the personality known as “the voice with a sob in it.” Vallee was concerned when the management decided to move him to the New York Paramount’s sister theater, the Brooklyn Paramount.

“After six weeks they shifted us (no recriminations) to the Brooklyn Paramount and, remembering the Keith-Albee hauteur, I was a little worried. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, a chance for me to learn the fine art of really running a show. I was to emcee the whole program, which ran approximately an hour, direct the augmented orchestra of twenty pieces, gag with the acts, set the tempos, and then eventually step forward for my own spot.”

Bing Crosby
Vallee returned to the Brooklyn Paramount in December 1929. On December 5 he made headlines when he visited a Brooklyn post office between performances to campaign for early mailing of Christmas gifts and letters. In 1930 Vallee headlined a show at the Brooklyn Paramount called “College Rhythm.” He was joined by Ethel Merman, whose appearance led to George Gershwin casting her in “Girl Crazy.” This launched her fabled Broadway career. 
Rudy Vallee was the first to acknowledge that his heyday was over once he heard the voice of Bing Crosby. In 1926 Crosby joined the band of Paul Whiteman, “The King of Jazz,” where he developed his vocal skills. In 1930 Crosby joined the Gus Arnheim band, headquartered at The Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles.

By the time Crosby embarked upon a solo career in 1931 he had shed the tenor range. He understood that the microphone favored baritones. Crosby assimilated many different styles, ranging from classical to jazz, and fused them into a unique sound, which accounted for his meteoric rise.

It must have resembled a ceremonial passing of the torch when Rudy Vallee introduced Crosby at his debut at the New York Paramount Theater on Nov. 6, 1931. He remained there for a record breaking three months, ending on Feb. 11, 1932. Immediately afterward he began an engagement at the Brooklyn Paramount for six weeks at five shows a day, from February 12 until March 24, 1932. He was paid the then staggering salary of $4,000 a week.

This was a prolific time for Crosby in New York. In between his shows in Brooklyn Crosby traveled to Manhattan to wax some of his most classic recordings: “St. Louis Blues” with Duke Ellington and "Shine” with The Mills Brothers; and his signature ballads, “Starlight” and “Paradise.”

 In his autobiography Crosby recalled his time at the Paramount theaters:

“I was used as a master of ceremonies. I sang a song or two, worked in with some of the specialty acts, or did straight for visiting comics. Being an emcee turned out to be rather a merry assignment. I found I could be quite the gabby fellow. I’d always been fascinated with words and their meanings.”

Often Crosby was presented singing off stage or in half darkness or silhouette. There would sometimes be as many as three microphone set-ups so that he could roam the sprawling stage and serenade from different positions.

The theater’s press office enthusiastically heralded his appearances with great ballyhoo: “Brooklyn’s first chance to hear him - Bing Crosby, the Rhythm Boy who made good! An indefinite stay. He’s hot! He’s Torrid! He’s your favorite torch singer of songs you love. Everybody will like Bing, a regular fellow.” 

Thirty-eight Bing Crosby films had exclusive engagements at the Brooklyn Paramount. The first was The Big Broadcast, which featured Arthur Tracy, who headlined at the Brooklyn Paramount the week of Sept. 27, 1932.

Crosby was known as “The King of the Crooners” but one singer posed a threat to his throne. His name was Russ Columbo.
Columbo was used as a standby vocalist when Crosby was unable to perform. When Columbo became the band’s permanent singer, he began to model himself after his predecessor.

The zealous agent Con Conrad persuaded Columbo that perhaps he could rival Crosby’s ascendancy. He arranged for his client to sign recording and radio contracts with Crosby’s competitors. A publicity bonanza was fueled, and “The Battle of the Baritones” began.

The crooners’ combat intensified when Bob Weitman, manager of both Paramount theaters, booked Columbo into the Brooklyn Paramount. This clever maneuver deliberately coincided with Crosby’s engagement at the New York Paramount. Columbo opened at the Brooklyn Paramount on Nov. 26, 1931, and played there for 10 weeks, until Feb. 10, 1932. The newspaper ads touted the initial program as “a gala anniversary show crowning the achievements of three years as Brooklyn’s leading theater.” Sharing the bill during his run were Frances Faye, The Boswell Sisters, The Mills Brothers, and George Burns and Gracie Allen.

There was great hoopla for Columbo: “There’s Only One Place To See Him; Heralding Greater Entertainment than Ever Before; The Romeo of Song Back by Popular Demand.
The bill of fare for Christmas week 1931 included an eight-member female dance troupe, which had just shared the bill with Crosby at the New York Paramount. One of these was Grace Bradley, a well-known movie actress in the ’30s and the widow of William Boyd, better known as “Hopalong Cassidy.”

Bradley remembered of her time at the Brooklyn Paramount: “The audience reaction was always very good. I don’t remember any tearing of clothes or anything like that. The crowds weren’t riotous like the bobbysoxers later on. Russ was so good looking, with a great voice. He was much more a romantic type, but Bing was the one I was crazy about.”
She also recalled the grind of playing vaudeville in her native Brooklyn. “I was doing so many shows that I was losing two pounds a day. It was a matter of life and death! There wasn’t much relaxation. You didn’t even have time to eat. When you start in the morning and work until midnight – it gets to where you don’t have any personal life. You just exist!”

As soon as his Brooklyn Paramount engagement ended, Columbo replaced Crosby at the New York Paramount, just as Crosby began his stay at the Brooklyn Paramount.
Taking advantage of their overlapping engagements at both theaters, the two singers occasionally swapped appearances, rushing on the train to substitute for each other to the delight of their respective fans. This arrangement gained Crosby the title, “The Subway Crooner.”

Soon the mock feud ceased as the careers of the two singers diverged. Columbo’s life came to an end on Sept. 2, 1934, when he succumbed to a wound from a bullet accidentally fired from an antique pistol. He was 26 years old. Crosby, who was one of his pallbearers, went on to dominate the popular culture for successive generations.

When the Brooklyn Paramount opened it was at an historic juncture, as the twilight of vaudeville turned into the dawn of mass media culture. These trailblazing stars rose to the occasion at this landmark in the heart of Brooklyn’s old theater district where for the price of a quarter, Depression-ravaged audiences could find fleeting sanctuary from the turbulent times and enjoy the frivolity and majesty within its hallowed walls.   

Martin McQuade is a consultant for Bing Crosby Enterprises. In 2002, he served as guest curator for Hofstra University’s conference, “Bing! And American Culture.” From 2003-2008 he assisted Crosby's widow Kathryn Crosby in the organization of several tributes honoring her husband, including the 2004 New York Public Library series, “Celebrating the Crosbys,” and  the 2005 Film Society of Lincoln Center 14-film review, “What a Swell Party.” Martin McQuade’s mother was among the audience members during Bing Crosby’s first engagement at the Brooklyn Paramount in February 1932.

The above article is based on a presentation Mr. McQuade made at a June 2006 conference at Long Island University about the history of the Brooklyn Paramount. 

As a singer, Mr. McQuade regularly performs at the Greenhouse Cafe in Bay Ridge (7717 Third Ave.), and will be performing there this Sunday, Feb. 12, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., in honor of the 80th anniversary of Bing Crosby's debut at the Brooklyn Paramount.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Lecture Circuit: Ben Feldman at the Brooklyn Brainery

Author Ben Feldman will be speaking tonight (Feb. 7) at 515 Court St. from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Feldman is the author of the blog New York Wanderer, and the books Butchery on Bond Street – Sexual Politics and the Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-bellum New York and Call Me Daddy - Babes and Bathos in Edward West Browning’s Jazz-Age New York. 

It is this latter book that will be the subject of tonight's talk, which is brought to you by the Brooklyn Brainery. (Tickets are $8 and can be purchased here).

Call Me Daddy is the story of the salacious antics of millionaire Edward West Browning, whose divorce proceedings from his teenaged wife "Peaches" Heenan was splashed all over the tabloids of  1920s New York.

Brooklyn Before Now wrote about Call Me Daddy when it was released in 2009. You can check that out here.

Friday, February 3, 2012

1964 New York City School Boycott

AP Photo
Young Leonard Morris is pictured with his mother Rebecca in 1963. They are outside the Board of Education building on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn. His mother wanted him admitted to Erasmus Hall School, which was out of his district (they lived at 66 Prospect Place). She contended that the John Jay School, which he was zoned for, was scholastically poor. The Board of Education turned down the request.A demonstration was staged by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on Leonard’s behalf.

Leonard’s story is representative of what was described as de facto segregation in the New York City school system, in which many of the schools were essentially all white or all black because of the neighborhood in which they were located, and the quality of the education was not equal among the schools.

On Feb. 3, 1964, Civil Rights activists such as Bayard Rustin, who helped organize the Freedom Rides down south and the March on Washington in 1963, made the New York City school system the site of their next demonstration. They boycotted the schools for a day. More than 450,000 students didn't go to school, and picketers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to demonstrate in front of the Board of Education building.

To read the full story on the boycott, see the Brooklyn Eagle.

Apparently parents and activists who are displeased with the school system in New York are still utilizing the same protest techniques. The Eagle also has an article today about a planned boycott of a Crown Heights school this Monday.